This week, Zero Punctuation reviews The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword.
Deck the halls and ring whatever bells you have conveniently to hand: there's finally a full-on Zelda game on the Wii. By which I mean, a full-on Zelda game that didn't have a simultaneous Gamecube release illustrating that anyone who willingly plays a version with motion controls must have recently fallen asleep with their head on a Breville sandwich toaster.
Zelda games are simultaneously easy and difficult to criticize. Easy, because the same major criticism can be dusted off and wheeled out every time - that despite graphical changes and gameplay tweaks, Nintendo have been releasing essentially the same game with such reliability for the last fifteen years that we can practically sing along at this point. But the moment you say that, it's like you're grinding your naked bum into the Turin shroud. "No, no, no," sputter the fanboys, "that's how it works! Every Zelda game is the beta for the next one", which implies that Nintendo have been knowingly releasing an unfinished product for decades and still haven't gotten it right, but we lap it up every time like starved inbred kittens.
The thing is though, even by those standards (completely fucked up standards that they are), Skyward Sword still isn't very good. And it's not just because I hate motion control, although that's certainly a big part of it. While recent first-party Nintendo offerings like Kirby's Epic Yarn and New Super Mario Bros. have had a tendency to scoot by head bowed, trying not to make eye contact with the whole motion controls thing, Skyward Sword's game plan seems to be largely to bash us over the head with the Wiimote and yell "Remember this?!".
Only now the Wii MotionPlus has added the ability to register what direction you're slashing the sword, and apparently this never ceases to amaze, because I swear every single enemy in the game has some kind of directional blocking ability. Which would be fine, but Wiimote reaction delay hasn't gone anywhere, and in a fast-paced fight Link always seems to be doing the thing you wanted him to do one second ago but which will now result in an electrified scrotum from the baddie's recently repositioned stun prod. And the flying controls are like scraping wallpaper off the inside of a tea cup ride.
As always, the game starts with a Link oversleeping. I have a theory that Link is like Sherlock Holmes and can only function as a human being if he's either on an adventure or enough cocaine to floor a sumo wrestler. This version of Link lives in a big floating ivory tower in the sky where everyone gets about on trained birds and Zelda is the standard anime childhood friend/love interest, which is at least a personality of some kind. But traditionally in Zelda games, Zelda is either already a princess and has no personality or discovers she's a princess and immediately loses all personality, most egregiously in Wind Waker, when she's initially a sassy and effective pirate queen but the moment she discovers her birth right, her adventuring clothes transform into the world's least practical dress and she spends the rest of the game locked in a cupboard.
Speaking of Wind Waker, spiritually Skyward Sword feels quite reminiscent of it, except you're exploring an ocean of clouds rather than the more traditional ocean of water. But if the surface world is supposed to be so completely covered in clouds that you and your ivory tower friends aren't even sure it exists, then why, when you're exploring the surface world, is it always a bright, sunny day? I found a plot hole! NURSE!
So obviously Zelda ends up in an embuggerance and Link has to pick up the magic sword and sort her out. This time the magic sword comes free with a standard-issue support character, who deserves special mention because besides a twitchy, enraged badger that points out important quest items by breaking wind at them, I cannot imagine a worse assistant. Her big thing is spurious rigor. She can't just say, "Go in the room and stab the big lad in the obvious glowing weak spot", it's always, "There is a 70% chance that you must stab the big lad in the obvious glowing weak spot." She sounds like a fucking laundry detergent commercial.
Her other big thing is stating the obvious. Someone tells you to go the Forest Temple - Bing! "Link, I have calculated that we must go to the Forest Temple!" Giant tentacles burst up through the floor - Bing! "Link, I have calculated that there's a big monster outside with a nark on!" You suck a man's cock - Bing! "Link, I have calculated that you are sucking a man's cock. There is a 70% chance that you should now cradle his balls!" And since the text crawls onto the screen as slowly as it can get away with, it's like being stuck on a long car ride with one of those people who insist on reading out loud every single fucking sign you pass.
I guess I got unusually angry about that because everything else feels kind of padded and generally lackluster, like the musical instrument du jour, the harp. Previous ones had you enter different sequences of notes or gestures for different effects, but in every situation that calls for this one you just wave your hand back and forth like you want to swat a fly but aren't particularly bothered. I'm not a harp player, but I'm pretty sure there's more to it than that.
I liked Wind Waker because it had a huge, seamless world to explore, and Skyward Sword just feels small in comparison. The free-roamy sky area contains precisely one town island where you do all the shopping and five hundred floating rocks, many of which have chests you can't open until you find their equivalent in one of the gated-off DESIGNATED QUESTING AREAS, so fuck exploration. And of the DESIGNATED QUESTING AREAS, there are only three, that you revisit like the outside toilet when the trots are going around: a forest, a desert, and a volcano. And the forest has to pull double duty as the water area as well.
So no one really seems to be that into anything that's going on, not even the villains. The big evil dark demon lad hasn't even taken anything over yet. In fact, there's a boss fight they copy-paste three times that just involves whacking the big baddie over the head with a rolled-up newspaper so he doesn't escape from his hole. All the rest of the time is mainly spent "proving your worth". First you "prove your worth" for the Master Sword, then you "prove your worth" for the three Sacred Flames, and then "prove your worth" a few more times for the Song of the Hero. If I were Link, I'd throw the sword down and yell, "Do you want this motherfucker dead or what? I feel like I'm trying to arrest the person burgling your house and you keep telling me to fuck off until I've put on some nicer shoes."
I won't say the game doesn't have its moments - the pirate ship bit is all right - but even if we concede to the fanboys that a Zelda game can only be judged alongside other Zelda games, Skyward Sword is the worst Zelda game I've ever played. I mean, two of the dungeons just end with a generic boss fight with a recurring baddie, and you don't even defeat him with an item you found in the same dungeon. That's breaking the Zelda rule! I'm pretty sure that means the developers must now report to Shigeru Miyamoto's office, kneel on a Wii Fit board, and honourably disembowel themselves with a tennis racket attachment.
- Bear in mind I haven't played the CDI ones: Ben "Yahtzee" Croshaw
- Yes alright I know stepping in the water wakes up the monsters you don't have to show the fucking cutscene of them waking up every fucking time
- It's not a harp it's a lyre alright
- After almost ten years of being only on the Escapist website, the review was uploaded to YouTube on July 17, 2021, the day after The Legend of Zelda: Skyward Sword HD was released on Nintendo Switch.